Student devotes break to relief effort

by Beacon Staff • March 22, 2006

Wohl's family lived in uptown New Orleans until they left their home on Aug.,While some students spent their spring break on the beaches of Cancun or Daytona, others opted for a less extravagant stay at home. That's a luxury that Katie Wohl, a freshman theatre studies major, doesn't have anymore.

Wohl's family lived in uptown New Orleans until they left their home on Aug. 28 of last year, the day before Hurricane Katrina hit the region and left vast destruction in its wake.

Wohl spent winter break moving into a new home in New Orleans-one on higher ground-but said she didn't return during spring break.

"It was too depressing," Wohl said. "I couldn't do it again."

While the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina kept Wohl away, thousands of college students from across the country flocked to the Gulf Coast to support the relief effort, including a number of Emersonians.

One of the students drawn to the region was freshman media studies major Nate Berends.

"New Orleans paid $3 million to hold Mardi Gras the week before I went," Berends, who is senator of the Class of 2009, said. "I was working at WERS, putting together a news piece, and I came across a story about New Orleans residents who were angry about that, because there are still neighborhoods untouched seven months after the fact."

Berends said he bought his plane ticket himself and immediately got in touch with the Emerson Good News Fellowship, a campus Christian fellowship of which he is a member.

They connected him to Campus Crusade for Christ (CCCI), which helped Berends contact relief organizations in New Orleans.

Even after seven months of media coverage of the hurricane's effects, Berends said he was ill-prepared for what he saw when he got off the plane.

"I was expecting to see destruction. What I actually found was a war-zone," he said. "You can't convey what's going on down there in the media. Photographs don't do it justice. Video doesn't do it justice and writing about it in a newspaper certainly doesn't do it justice."

Berends and his companions at the Good News Camp got to work "mucking out" a church of the Philadelphia Ministries in St. Bernard Parish. According to Berends, St. Bernard's Parish is a suburb of New Orleans adjacent to the Ninth Ward, the hardest-hit area of New Orleans.

"That's where we worked," Berends said. "Where I slept every night was, at one point, eight feet under water."

Mucking out involved shoveling out mud and filth from the church, where water lines reached 13 feet up the walls, and ripping out its insides so that it can one day be rebuilt, according to Berends.

"To really see the transformation of that church at the end of the week was extraordinarily fulfilling," Berends said. "Us restoring that church is going to affect hundreds of families."

Despite her decision to remain away from New Orleans during spring break, Wohl has been making a difference in her own way. She is a member of the Campus Conversations on Race Action Committee and has played a central role in organizing Saturday's "Displacement," a simulation of the conditions of the Superdome immediately after Katrina struck seven months ago.

Berends said New Orleans still needs a great deal of work. "Two-thirds of the city is without power," he said. "At night, you can walk through the city and not see a lightbulb for miles." He also noted, as several media outlets like National Public Radio have reported, that just 50 percent of levees are repaired. "The situation down there is fragile."